Hezbollah's stockpile bigger, deadlier

Times Staff Writer

Almost two years after its war with Israel, Hezbollah has rearmed and is stronger than before the conflict, according to Israeli and Western officials and the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group itself.

But assessments diverge on the source of Hezbollah's arms. Western and Israeli officials accuse Iran and Syria of smuggling thousands of short-range rockets as well as missiles that can strike deep into Israel and other weaponry into Lebanon in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Smuggling routes have included a rail line through Turkey, the officials say.

Hezbollah dismisses smuggling allegations as propaganda, as do Iran and Syria, but the group refuses to say how it gets its weapons.

In the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel. Most were inaccurate, short-range models, but the attacks killed at least 39 civilians and had a profound psychological effect on Israelis.

About 1,000 people were killed in Lebanon during the 34-day war.

Tensions have risen again. In February, a car bomb in Damascus, the Syrian capital, killed Imad Mughniyah, a Hezbollah chief wanted by U.S., European and Argentine authorities in connection with terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of people in the 1980s and '90s. Hezbollah blamed Israel and promised retaliation.

Israel has not confirmed or denied that it was involved in Mughniyah's death. But it has beefed up defenses and conducted a rare nationwide defense drill in April. Tough talk from both sides continues.

Hezbollah now has about 27,000 rockets and missiles, more than double its supply before the 2006 war, Israeli officials say. Acquisitions include Iranian missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv, they allege.

"We know without a doubt that the international embargo on the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah has been deliberately violated by the governments of Iran and Syria," said Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman.

The U.S. government, which has designated Hezbollah a terrorist group, accuses Iran of providing arms, training and millions of dollars. Syria also has emerged as an arms supplier, not just a conduit for Iranian arms, Israeli officials say.

"The Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis is closer than it has been since 2006," an Israeli security official said in an interview. "In operational planning, the Syrians know that Hezbollah is part of their defense architecture. Hezbollah is stronger than before the war. They have improved their antitank capabilities, the number and quality of their rockets."

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has asserted that the militia's arsenal has attained or surpassed its prewar level. He has said that his weapons can hit "any area in occupied Palestine."

Hezbollah leaders have declined to discuss specific numbers. But a source close to Hezbollah agreed with the Israeli assessment of the military buildup. The source spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a temporary halt in contacts with Western news media.

"We are ready and we are stronger than two years ago," the source said. "In every battle there are weak and strong points. We have found solutions to all of our weak points from that experience."

The source said Iran has no "operational" role, but acknowledged that Tehran and the militia have a strong strategic partnership.

Nasrallah and his deputies say they would not provoke new hostilities.

In a report presented in February, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that rearmament of Hezbollah would threaten the "sovereignty, stability and independence of Lebanon." Hezbollah controls large chunks of Lebanese territory, especially in the south.

In a report in October, Ban presented allegations provided to the U.N. by Israel and by Lebanon's prime minister that Hezbollah had beefed up its missile stocks with Syrian and Iranian help, and said those two countries had "special responsibility" not to destabilize Lebanon. Speeches by Nasrallah "seemed to confirm" Israeli allegations about the growth of the arsenal, Ban said.

Western and Israeli officials say Iran and Syria play a vital clandestine role in rebuilding Hezbollah's military. Because of his ties to Iranian and Syrian security forces, Mughniyah oversaw the drive, officials say.

Western security officials say they discovered last year that Iran was procuring telescopic sights for antitank guns and rocket-propelled grenades from an Eastern European country. Communications among Iranian diplomats revealed that the sights were earmarked for Hezbollah, say the officials, who because of the sensitivity of the information declined to be identified. Iran also allegedly furnished night-vision equipment and binoculars, the officials say.

An explosion last May in southeastern Turkey exposed an arms trafficking route operated by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, the Western security officials say. When Kurdish separatists blew up the tracks and derailed a train heading from Iran to Syria, police discovered rockets, missiles, guns and ammunition concealed in construction equipment.

Iran denied allegations that the shipment was bound for Hezbollah. Soon afterward, Iran demoted Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, officials say. In September, Safavi was replaced by his deputy, Mohammed Ali Jafari.

Iran allegedly shifted some Hezbollah-bound arms to aerial smuggling routes to Syria that use civilian and military aircraft, officials say. The Revolutionary Guard also resumed smuggling by rail, bolstering clandestine security teams that accompany shipments and paying bigger bribes to border inspectors and rail employees, officials say.

The Western security officials say Turkey tries to fight the weapons activity. Turkish officials declined to comment, and the latest annual report by Turkey's anti-smuggling directorate does not describe Iranian arms smuggling as a significant problem. When Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Turkish journalists that Ankara could do more to crack down on arms traffic to Hezbollah, Tehran called the allegations "false and fictitious."

Israeli officials say Hezbollah's most potent weapons include about 500 Iranian Zilzal guided missiles, with ranges of 77, 136 and 186 miles. In addition, they say Hezbollah has 4,000 to 6,000 Iranian Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 rockets with ranges of 27 and 46 miles, respectively. And they say Syria has provided an estimated 20,000 rockets.

"The Syrians are a huge supplier of their own systems to them," the Israeli security official said. "They are not just passing on Iranian arms shipments anymore."

Patrick Haenni, a senior analyst in Lebanon for the International Crisis Group, said that although he does not have detailed information on Hezbollah's arsenal or its source, the statements by both Hezbollah and Israel "seem rather credible."

"All the signs on the ground show that Hezbollah is in a concerted phase of preparation, and concentrated on its military reactivation," he said. "The acquisition of missiles is part of their change in military strategy to position themselves as a dissuasion force rather than a classic guerrilla resistance."

In June, Lebanese authorities stopped a truck carrying Soviet-made Grad missiles bound for Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley near Baalbek, U.N. and Lebanese officials said. Lebanese officials said the shipment was being moved within the country, but Western security officials say the weapons had come across the Syrian border. A few days later, the U.N. special envoy to Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, told the Security Council about what he called "alarming and deeply disturbing" evidence of the flow of arms from Syria.

Late last year, Damascus struck a procurement deal with a Russian company to acquire SA-18 air-defense systems, Western security officials say. Unbeknown to the Russians, Syria allegedly plans to transfer the shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles to Hezbollah, officials say. The deal is done but the weapons have not yet been delivered to Syria, they say.

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rotella@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem and special correspondent Yesim Borg in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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